Testing the Spirits

One major “issue” I highlighted about the work of the Holy Spirit is that people sometimes get it wrong. People have claimed that God tells them to do all sorts of crazy things! How can we be sure we are being moved by the Spirit?

One comical illustration of this issue is a story I once heard about a pastor in the early 1900s from the Houston area. During appointment season, this pastor boastfully approached his District Superintendent claiming that the Holy Spirit told him that he should be sent to serve St. John’s Methodist. This particular church was in the downtown area of the city and was one of the largest and wealthiest congregations of the entire conference. St. John’s even gave their pastor a car to attend the fancy elite parties of the parish! The DS was taken aback by this pastor’s boldness to essentially ask for such a “promotion.” Well, months later, the pastor found out he was indeed being sent to St. John’s… only that it was a different St. John’s Methodist church, 100 miles outside of the city in a tiny, struggling town!

So how can we avoid letting pride get the better of us or otherwise being misled for our direction in life?

1 John 4:1-2 provides a sort of blueprint for “testing” spirits–perhaps you’ve heard of this phrasing before:

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.

Did you notice the key detail of this passage? Not every feeling or experience we have is from God. Likewise, we must scrutinize what we encounter in order to ensure we stick to a Godly path. The Spirit of God, in whatever experience we might have, will always acknowledge that Jesus is central to our faith. Your life decisions ought to reflect this truth about who Christ is.

As you discern the work of the Holy Spirit and God’s plan for you, consider the following questions about whatever might be happening in your life. Whether it is tough decisions at work, navigating personal relationships, or making huge life changes, I’ve found these reflection prompts to be extremely helpful in my own walk with Christ…

  • Have I taken time to pray for this decision? It is absolutely important to open yourself up to the moving of the Holy Spirit. Without doing so, we truly lack any sense of direction. Make a conscious effort to pray about your situation.
  • Is what I’m sensing compatible with the ministry of Jesus? We have all kinds of experiences. We feel all sorts of feelings and think various thoughts. Those that are from God must line up with the life of Jesus Christ. Likewise, something like the decision to pursue revenge or hold onto a grudge is absolutely antithetical to the kind of person Jesus was–that kind of spirit is not from God! The Holy Spirit lines up with the character of Christ.
  • Is my “gut” in alignment with or opposition to the broader Christian tradition? Sometimes people may claim God is telling them to do some questionable things (consider the clear problem of the television evangelist soliciting money for a private jet!). Chances are, whatever you feel called to must be in tune with what other Christians have experienced, too. The church has historically proclaimed the Lordship of Christ, the goodness of God, the importance of ministering to our broken world, and so forth. Does your feeling or desire align with this broad mission?
  • Who will be glorified in this situation, me or God? Sometimes when we decide what to do in life, we want to advance our own interests (like the St. John’s story above). I would caution against feelings and decisions that would elevate your own position in the world. We must always seek to bring God glory, and the Holy Spirit will “nudge” us in this direction. God’s calling on your life and the moving of the Holy Spirit will almost always humble you in one way or another.

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